Walking on air: Light, Hilling having a blast at Penn State
Vlad Hilling called it a dream come true. Denver Light says it’s the best decision he’s ever made.
There’s no telling if the two Blair County walk-ons will ever make big contributions on the field at Penn State. But both young men are having the time of their lives being members of the Nittany Lion football team, and both are working as hard as they can in hopes of someday getting on the field and making an impact.
Light, a true freshman linebacker from Tyrone, and Hilling a redshirt freshman kicker from Hollidaysburg, traveled and dressed with the team for last week’s Cotton Bowl against Memphis in Dallas. Both players were all smiles as they celebrated on the field with their teammates at AT&T Stadium and in the locker room after the 53-39 victory.
Penn State freshmen usually are not allowed to speak with the media, but that changed with the Lions appearing in a New Year’s Six bowl game, which mandates that all players on the team are available to the press in the locker room.
Light’s on a mission
Light is a preferred walk-on who played both linebacker and quarterback at Tyrone Area High School. A terrific athlete, he could have gone to a smaller college and played immediately, perhaps even becoming a star, but he followed his heart to Penn State for a chance to play at the Division I level.
“This was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Light said. “The opportunity here is amazing, it’s unreal. I’m very happy I’m here and got the chance to come here.”
He’s not, however, content to just be part of the team. Light is an extremely hard worker who hopes to build up his body and become a member of the linebacker rotation at some point.
“He’s actually got a shot,” said Brent Pry, PSU’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. “He’s got pretty good quicks, he’s got some good football instincts about him, he’s a good tackler. He’s just got to get bigger and stronger. But I like him.”
Light is 6-foot-1 and currently weighs 215 pounds. That’s a little small for a major-college linebacker, and Light hopes to be able to get up to 235 during his career.
He spent this season as a member of the scout team and did everything he could in the weight room to help himself.
“I went as hard as I can every day,” Light said. “I put as much work in as I can. I would go against the ones every day in practice at linebacker. I was playing mostly sam, a little bit of will. I would go against the ones and be kind of like the linebacker for the team we’re playing that week and help them get better. It also helped me get better covering KJ (Hamler) and all these other really good players.
“I got better, for sure. It was great. Going against them made me better in my position.”
Light’s high school coach at Tyrone, Jason Wilson, has no doubt the young man will work as hard as he can at Penn State.
“He’s one of the hardest workers that we’ve ever had,” Wilson said of his tenure at Tyrone. “No doubt in the weight room he’ll get to the strength and weight he needs to be at.”
Wilson said he texted Light as soon as the Cotton Bowl game ended.
“I told him how proud I was that he stuck with his dreams and to be able to play at Penn State,” Wilson said. “I know he’s not satisfied with where he’s at right now; he wants to get on the field.”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Light to do just that. Penn State’s starting middle linebacker the past couple of years, Jan Johnson, came to PSU as a walk-on. Josh Hull also began his college career as a walk-on and went on play in the NFL a few years back.
“I think Denver kind of looks at players like that, they were in the same position as him and accepted the challenge and worked as hard as they could to follow their dreams,” Wilson said.
“I know that he looked at it as definitely a challenge compared to some other offers he had out of high school,” Wilson added. “But his dream was to play at a Division I school at Penn State.”
Light knows exactly what he has to do to give himself a shot.
“I’ve got to keep working, put in the work,” he said. “That’s all I’ve got to do.”
Hilling ‘perfectly happy’
The kicker from Hollidaysburg Area High School has tremendous enthusiasm and is always upbeat.
He also has loved his time at Penn State.
“So far it’s been a dream come true,” Hilling said.
Hilling competed for the open place-kicker spot last year, but Jake Pinegar won the job. Hilling has a tremendous leg — he kicked a Big 33 game record 56-yard field goal in high school — but he wasn’t quite as consistent as Pinegar in the competition.
“I competed my best, I didn’t get the job, so I try to do my best no matter what it is,” Hilling said. “If I’m a scout team person or whatever, I’m willing to compete as much as I can, and whenever I get the opportunity I will compete.
“It’s all about flexibility, leg speed and leg strength. As long as you work on that and you’re a consistent kicker, you’ll be perfectly fine.”
The issue for Hilling is that Pinegar is just a sophomore and has been reliable, so he will have two more years as the projected starting place-kicker. Hilling will have to bide his time and compete for the job again when it opens up for his senior year.
Hilling confirmed he won’t be going anywhere between now and then, even if it could mean a chance to kick at another school.
“Oh yeah, I 100 percent see myself graduating from Penn State,” he said.
“As a college student it’s a dream come true,” Hilling added of his overall experience at PSU. “I’m loving it. I love my professors, love my classes, love the friends I’ve made in this amazing atmosphere at one of the top universities you can go to.”
A true team-first player, Hilling is enjoying the opportunity he gets to improve at his craft each and every day.
“I feel like being around these guys who are some of the best kickers in the country has definitely made me a better competitor and better kicker,” he said. “And I have real good coaching that improves it a lot.
“I’m perfectly happy for (the other kickers) because they’re doing a great job for the team. It’s not about me, it’s about the team. I put team first, and as long as they’re doing a good job, I’m perfectly happy.”